Regional Reviews: Chicago
Also see John's review of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Hnath's premise is that we the audience are attending a service at this mega-church in an unnamed American city. Walt Spangler's set design converts the Steppenwolf downstairs stage into the church sanctuary. Lights are kept on in the house, as they would be in a church service. A choir sings for us before "curtain" (of course there's no literal curtain). The play's action begins with Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin) taking the pulpit to deliver the sermon. His sermon begins innocuously and typically enough with an announcement (the church has finally paid off its mortgage) and a shout-out to the pastor's beautiful wife (Shannon Cochran).
Pastor Paul continues the sermon by retelling a story from a missionary about a young boy in a foreign country who lost his life while rescuing a sibling from a fire. The missionary lamented that the boy would go to hell as he had not accepted Christ as his savior. Pastor Paul disputes that conclusion and proceeds to challenge the very concept of hell by suggesting alternate interpretations of the scripture as it relates to salvation. He suggests that maybe this world is hell, given the horrendous way humans treat each other, and that all are redeemed through Christ and will go to heaven. When Pastor Paul senses some resistance to this idea from his associate pastor Josh (Glenn Davis), Paul invites him to discuss on the spot. Josh accepts the challenge and enters a theological debate that ends with Pastor Josh leaving the church and taking 50 parishioners with him.
The action continues with a scene (performed on the "sanctuary" set but clearly occurring somewhere else) in which board member Elder Jay (played by Robert Breuler) expresses concern about Pastor Paul's assertion about the nature of damnation vs. salvation and its effect on the financial health of the church. Things come to a head, though, when parishioner Ginnie (Jacqueline Williams) speaks at a service and reveals her own doubts about Paul's new doctrine. "Does that mean if someone killed my son, he could go to heaven?" she asks. "What about Hitler? Does he get into heaven, too?" Yes, he does, answers Paul. "Wouldn't that be heaven, though? A place where the earthly feelings of hate don't matter?" The argument is not persuasive for Ginnie or many of the other parishioners. As much as they all love Pastor Paul, they can't accept the premise that the most evil among us can earn salvation.
I suspect that premise is not so new to people who are more regular churchgoers than I am, but the exchange between Ginnie and Pastor Paul was for me a revelation. The Christian faiths, and I was brought up in one, teach forgiveness and redemption through Christ as their central tenet. In what I have retained from my religious training, we are all sinnersnone of us better than anyone elseand that the requirement for that redemption is to accept Christ as savior and to repent for our sins. What Hnath points out in The Christians, though, is that this allows us a way to remain apart in the afterlife from the worst sinners. Surely, Hitler didn't accept Christ and repent in his final moments of life. So if we take comfort in the belief that those who most resent and are unable to forgive will be separated from us for eternity, aren't we rejecting the teaching that God loves and will forgive us all? And if we reject that premise, are we really Christians?
Hnath raises other issues as well. Can we ever be sure of the truth of our religious convictions? Aren't we more likely to accept the teachings we want to believe? And what of the conflict of interest between teaching "the truth" versus telling people what they want to hear, when telling them what they don't want to hear might lead to financial ruin for the congregation?
Tom Irwin makes a charismatic preacher and one we believe is sincere in his teaching. Davis, Williams and Cochran are all sympathetic in communicating the emotional torment that Paul's new theology brings them, as well as the upending of an institution and home that had brought them all great comfort. But The Christians is no traditional play in structure or presentation. The story that Hnath builds to frame this is slight, and the characters somewhat less developed (though well-acted) than we would normally expect. Director K. Todd Freeman brings it all together as an effective presentational hybrid of narrative and theological debate. He tells the story through the characters but the point is not so much the journey of Pastor Paul and the others as the theological questions it raises. It may not be what we most expect from an evening at the theatre, but on the other hand, it may be just the sort of provocative discourse that keeps theatre important.
The Christians will play through January 29, 2017, at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. For further information visit www.steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650.